In his drug education book, Methamphetamine, journalist Hal Marcovitz (2006) called methamphetamine “the ugliest drug there is”. The section immediately below discusses the drug’s history—its progression to ugliness. Subsequent sections describe the preparation and effects of methamphetamine, legal issues, and recovery from methamphetamine addiction.
In 1887, a Japanese chemist extracted ephedrine, the precursor to methamphetamine, from the ephedra plant. Ephedrine was soon found useful in treating respiratory illness, especially asthma. About the same time, a German chemist combined ephedrine with other chemicals and produced amphetamine, which was also used to treat nasal and chest congestion. Due to the expense of the combining method, the Japanese streamlined the process in 1919 and produced a new drug called methamphetamine. Methamphetamine, a crystalline powder, could be converted to pill form or dissolved in water and injected. In its crystalline form, it is called crystal meth or “ice”. Its major use was still the treatment of respiratory problems and later to treat ADHD (Marcovitz, 2006).
For a couple decades, amphetamine was regarded as a “wonder drug”, recommended as treatment for illnesses ranging from narcolepsy to sea sickness. In World War II, amphetamine tablets were widely administered to American soldiers to combat fatigue. (Japanese soldiers were similarly dosed.) The 1960’s saw the first surge of methamphetamine use as a recreational drug, and there have been recurrent surges of illegal use ever since. In the 1990’s, amphetamine and methamphetamine became the main challengers to cocaine as the most popular illegal stimulant in the U.S. Its diffusion, in terms of popularity and home lab manufacture, moved west from the Pacific coast states, California first, to the eastern seaboard (Weisheit and White, 2009). In 2000, Mexico became the major supplier (Navarro, 2013).
While there are numerous “recipes” for making methamphetamine, the two most common methods used in domestic laboratories are the red phosphorous (Red-P) method and the Birch method. According to Weisheit and White (2009), both use ephedrine or pseudoephedrine and remove the oxygen molecule by “cooking” the ephedrine with (a) red phosphorous, from matchbook striking surfaces, and iodine (the Red-P method) or (b) anhydrous ammonia, lithium (from batteries), lye and paint thinner (the Birch method).
Not surprisingly, the toxicity of the product makes it dangerous to users, manufacturers and the environment. The meth labs themselves pose a danger additional to that of using the substance. Because of the inflammability of the ingredients used, the labs frequently catch fire, which endangers people in the lab (including children in the home, if a lab is in the home), emergency responders and other homes and businesses in the area. Also, the toxic wastes that are usually dumped carelessly pose another threat to the community (Weisheit and White, 2009).
According to NIDA (2013), smoking is the most common way of ingesting methamphetamine, although it can also be inhaled (snorted), injected or taken in pill form. Smoking or injecting achieves the fastest results, producing an intense rush, while snorting or taking in pill form also produces euphoria, less intense than a rush but lasting longer. It also increases heart rate, alertness and focus and decreases appetite.
Weisheit and White (2009), with others, attribute the euphoria to methamphetamine’s excitation of the neurotransmitter dopamine. (Neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit signals from a neuron to a target cell.) These authors additionally note that two other neurotransmitters, serotonin and norepinephrine, are also involved in the euphoric effect, but have not been studied as extensively as dopamine.
One phenomenon that distinguishes methamphetamine from other stimulants, such as cocaine, is that it inhibits the reabsorption (reuptake) of dopamine by the releasing neuron. Over time and continued use of methamphetamine, the natural supply of dopamine is depleted. Long-term reduction in dopamine leads to an inability to experience pleasure (Weisheit and White, 2009, p. 49).
Methamphetamine can also cause cardiovascular problems such as rapid and irregular heartbeat and increased blood pressure, elevated body temperature and, in overdose, convulsions that could result in death. Long term abuse can lead to anxiety, confusion, insomnia, mood disturbances, and violent behavior (NIDA, 2013). Moreover, the ability to react appropriately to life-threatening situations is compromised, because dopamine, which has been depleted, normally converts to adrenaline in an emergency, (Ruden and Byalick, 2003).
It seems necessary to consider the association between methamphetamine use and violence. Weisheit and White (2013) observe that the association is not strong in the sense that all or most methamphetamine users are violent; however, there have been instances in which long term methamphetamine abusers have exhibited extremely violent and even homicidal behavior. Weisheit and White claim that several factors seem to operate in these cases. First, the individual has preexisting aggressive tendencies, is socially isolated, identifies solely with a drug culture, uses other drugs in addition to methamphetamine and has recently consumed a large dose of methamphetamine; and second, through long term use, he or she is has become paranoid to the point of psychosis.
Legal and social dilemmas arise in attempting to control the manufacture of methamphetamine. When the maker gets sent to jail or to a drug treatment center, he can pass on his methods and thereby create new manufacturers and spread the problem. If the maker is not jailed or treated, where is the disincentive?
Other dilemmas arise from concerns over civil rights. In particular, first amendment rights are in jeopardy in prohibiting sale of books by “Uncle Fester”. Uncle Fester is the author of Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture as well as books such as those on making explosives and defeating bulletproof vests (Weisheit and White, 2009, p. 122). Out of curiosity, this writer looked at the Alibris booksellers’website and found Uncle Fester’s manuals available, but at extraordinarily high prices.
An interesting situation in Florida (Florida v. Harris, 2013) resulted in the U. S. Supreme Court reversing a decision of the Florida Supreme Court. The Florida court had decided that, lacking a record of Aldo the narcotics dog’s past accurate drug sniffing performance, there was not probable cause to search the defendant’s car, which did in fact contain evidence of methamphetamine manufacture. The U.S. court reversed the Florida court by ruling that training records established Aldo’s reliability in detecting drugs, so that there was probable cause.
Researchers such as Wang et al, (2010) note that methamphetamine addiction recovery is more difficult than recovery from addiction to other stimulants, because the dopamine decrease after prolonged methamphetamine use leads to severe depression. But there are attempts to help methamphetamine addicts recover. As Ruden and Byalick (2003) observe, an effective “treatment requires learning a new response to the craving” for the drug (p. 248). These authors suggest such treatments as biofeedback, talk, behavioral therapy, and meditation.
A report from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA, 2013) claims that cognitive-behavioral therapy and contingency-management therapy seem to be the most effective treatments for methamphetamine addiction. Oddly, the report cites no studies in support of the claim.
However, Donovan et al. (2013) conducted clinical trials in which stimulant abusers were randomly assigned to two treatment conditions: a treatment-as-usual (TAU) and a treatment integrating group meetings and 12-step (e.g., Narcotics Anonymous) meeting attendance and service (STAGE-12). Participants in both groups abused or depended on one or more of the drugs: cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine, and alcohol. Results indicated that the STAGE-12 participants reported a greater frequency of stimulant abstinence during the 8-week treatment phase and greater attendance and service in 12 step programs in the 6–month follow-up period. Unfortunately, it was not possible to determine if methamphetamine users (33.8% of the treatment group) did better or worse than the treatment group as a whole. Many but not all of them used cocaine and/or alcohol as well as methamphetamine.
There is every indication that the NIDA will continue to investigate the issue of recovery from methamphetamine addiction (NIDA, 2013).
Summary and Conclusion
Methamphetamine began life as a benign drug, used for treating respiratory ills and ADHD. After it became known for its euphoric effect, it morphed into a recreational drug. Being highly addictive, it came to be regarded as too dangerous to be readily available. Thus began the growth in the U.S. of a “cottage industry”, producing the drug through methods that are both toxic and hazardous. Larger but not much safer “superlabs” in Mexico have become contributors to the availability of the drug. Controlling methamphetamine production and distribution and treating the addiction are major concerns today.
Donovan D et al. (2013) Stimulant abuser groups to engage in 12-step (STAGE-12): A multisite trial in the NIDA clinical trials network. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 44(1): 103-114.
Florida v. Clayton Harris (2013) 133 S. Ct. 1050, 2013 U.S. Lexis 1121, 81 USLW 4081.
Marcovitz H (2006) Methamphetamine. Farmington Hills, MI: Lucent Books.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (2013) Methamphetamine Abuse and Addiction. Available at
Navarro C (2013) Mexico becoming leading producer of methamphetamines. SourceMex Economic News & Analysis on Mexico, 17 July, p. 1.
Ruden R and Byalick M (2003) The Craving Brain, 2nd edn. New York: HarperCollins.
Wang G, et al (2012) Decreased dopamine activity predicts relapse in methamphetamine abuser. Molecular. Psychiatry 17(9): 918-925 (accessed 20 February 2012).
Weisheit, R, and White, W (2009) Methamphetamine: Its History, Pharmacology, and Treatment. Center City, MN: Hazelden.